In one of the upper boxes Lady Erskin had a small unescorted party. Lady Erskin herself was a plump little miniature who was rather exercised over the dilemma of whether to display a huge feathery fan and obliterate herself, or to sacrifice the fan to the glory of being stared at by common people. With her was her sister, the wife of a country rector, who assumed such an elaborate air of ennui that any one could have told it was her first time in a box. Between them was Lady Erskin’s rather pretty daughter, and behind her, with all her vivid personality made glorious in its setting of velvety cloak and creamy gown, was Elise Durwent, enjoying a three days’ respite from her long tour of duty.
The lights went out, and with the rising of the curtain the little drama of tenderness and cruelty held the stage. From the distance, Butterfly could be heard approaching, her voice coming nearer as the typical Puccini progressions followed her ascent. There was the marriage, the cursing of Butterfly by the Bonze, and the exquisite love duet, so full of passionate abandon, and yet shaded with such delicacy. At the conclusion of the act, where the orchestra adds its overpowering tour de force to the singers’, the audience burst into applause that lasted for several minutes. It was the spontaneous gratitude of hundreds of war-tired souls whose bonds had been relaxed for an hour by the magic touch of music.
‘Do you think the tenor is good-looking?’ asked Lady Erskin of no one in particular.
’Who is that in the opposite box, with the leopard’s skin on her shoulders?’ queried the rector’s wife.
‘I think Butterfly is topping,’ said Lady Erskin’s daughter. ’I always weep buckets in the second act.’
‘I should like to die to music like that,’ said Elise, almost to herself.
Close by a communication-trench, Dick Durwent stood shivering in the cool night-air. He was waiting to go forward on sentry-duty, the remainder of the relief having gathered at the other end of the reserve-trench in which he was standing; but though it was spring, there was a chill and a dampness in the air that seemed to breathe from the pores of the mutilated earth. A desultory shelling was going on, but for a week past a comparative calm had succeeded the hideous nightmare of March and early April, when Germany had so nearly swept the board clean of stakes.
He heard the voices of a carrying-party coming up, and suddenly he crouched low. There was a horrible whine, growing to a shriek—and a shell burst a few yards away. Shaken and almost deafened, Durwent remained where he was until he saw an object roll nearly to his feet. It was a jar of rum that was being brought up for issue. He lifted the thing up, and again he shivered in the raw air like one sickening of the ague. Quick as the thought itself, he put the jar down, and seizing his water-bottle, emptied its contents on the ground. Kneeling down, he filled it with rum, and leaving the jar lying at such an angle that it would appear to have spilled a certain amount, he hurriedly joined the rest of the relief warned for duty.